Oakland Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha remembers the moment as if it happened just yesterday.
A native of Nigeria, Asomugha grew up in Southern California after his parents fled the impoverished country. “My favorite
piece of clothing as a boy was a purple Magic Johnson jersey from the Los Angeles Lakers,” Asomugha recalls. “I
wore that jersey every day until it didn’t fit any longer.” On his first visit back to his homeland as a 7-year-old,
“I saw another little guy wearing my old favorite jersey. I could tell by looking at it that it had been mine.”
Just a few months before, Asomugha had taken the jersey off for the last time. At his parents’ suggestion, he deposited
it in a box filled with other clothing that would be donated to needy people in Nigeria.
“When I saw the jersey on someone else, I never said a word,” Asomugha tells SUCCESS. “Because, while
some kids might struggle there, I was taught from a very young age that giving to others is what we’re supposed to do.
My parents were among the first families from their area to leave Nigeria and come to America, the land of the free. Once
they got here, whatever they earned, they made sure to send some of it back. And they made sure that their children understood
the importance of giving back, too.”
The lesson certainly stuck.
Asomugha became a standout high-school football and basketball player in Los Angeles before choosing to play college football
at the University of California-Berkeley. At Cal, Asomugha became an all-conference safety and, more important, a graduate
with a degree in corporate finance. In the 2003 NFL draft, the Raiders used a first-round pick to add him to their team.
"I was taught from a very young age that giving to others is what we’re supposed to do."
Asomugha quickly became one of the Raiders’ most valuable players and was selected to the Pro Bowl after the 2006 season.
By the next season, his reputation as a defender was so well-known that some of the best quarterbacks in the NFL were quoted
as saying they didn’t even attempt to challenge him. The Raiders rewarded him with a jaw-dropping contract, making Asomugha
the highest-paid defensive back in NFL history.
Asomugha’s reputation as a philanthropist was growing at the same speed. The fleet-footed cornerback started making
regular visits to the East Oakland Youth Development Center, committing almost every Monday afternoon since 2004 to mentoring
and tutoring inner-city youth at the center. He has provided shoes and running suits to students there, and brings a number
of them to the Raiders training facility each year for an annual academic celebration. He has even taken a group fly-fishing.
“My experience with the center reminded me to always have my eyes open for opportunities to give back,” Asomugha
says. “My first visit there was just a simple speech to the students, just trying to encourage them to focus on their
education and do the right things. But I just connected with them, and it has become an important part of who I am.”
Two years after he “adopted” the students at the East Oakland center, Asomugha created the Asomugha College Tour
for Scholars (ACTS) program. Each year, he selects students from Bay Area high schools who meet his GPA and leadership requirements
and takes them on an all-expenses-paid college tour to different cities. To date, Asomugha has taken students to Atlanta for
visits at Morehouse College, Spelman College, Georgia Tech and Clark Atlanta University; Boston for visits to Harvard, MIT,
Boston University and Brown University; and to New York, where the students toured NYU, Columbia University, The Juilliard
School and Fordham University.
“Each of the kids who has gone on these trips was already a good student and was probably going to go to college,”
Asomugha says. “But I wanted to make sure they saw the world outside of this area and had a chance to think about college
in a city somewhere else. These are trips for exposure to other parts of the country, for eye-opening, really. It gave me
a chance to share my love of travel and my love of learning about new things with them, and, I have to admit, I’ve grown
as much as they have.”
Of the 25 students who have made the three trips with Asomugha, all but three have already been accepted into college. “And
those three just haven’t graduated from high school,” Asomugha says with a laugh. “We really are working
with some special young people.”
For all his charitable efforts in the Bay Area, Asomugha hasn’t forgotten his homeland. He continues to serve as chairman
for his family’s charity, the Orphans and Widows In Need (OWIN) Foundation. Through OWIN, Asomugha and his family provide
food, shelter, medicine and scholarships to orphans and widows in Nigeria. The organization supports two community centers
in Nigeria and plans to expand to other countries in Africa this year.
Asomugha admits his charitable efforts provide a secondary personal benefit. “Our team hasn’t done well over the
last couple of years,” Asomugha said in an interview last November, a day after the Raiders suffered their third loss
in a row. “It doesn’t matter how well you play individually if the team isn’t winning. When football is
your job, a lot of what you feel about yourself and about life can become attached to the outcome of those games. That’s
probably true about a lot of jobs, but we suffer our losses pretty publicly. When you’re not getting the results you
want, it becomes easy to get depressed.
“Being involved in a number of other things that leave you feeling good about life doesn’t make the football any
easier, but it does make it easier to put it in perspective. I can’t imagine where I would be without having these things
to help me. Charity was so ingrained in me that it really is second nature. It is a part of life. But in the situation, charity
is actually benefitting me as much as it is those we’re helping.”
Today, Asomugha’s Raiders jersey number 21 is worn by children all over Oakland. And it’s worn by children in
Nigeria, too. S
Don Yaeger is a New York Times best-selling author, longtime associate editor at Sports Illustrated and
nationally recognized motivational speaker.